In this guest article for Pride Month, translator Anton Hur explains how he learned that the typical English reader is a myth – and that the readership for translated fiction is much less conservative than he’d been led to believe
One of my fondest memories of the whole 2022 International Booker Prize experience is when I found out that the Happy Stories, Mostly author Norman Erikson Pasaribu and their translator Tiffany Tsao were on the same longlist as me and my authors, Bora Chung and Sang Young Park. I immediately DM’ed Norman on Instagram, but neither of us, they a poet and I a translator, both professions where our ability to find the right word has proven to be something of an asset, used words to express our joy. Instead, we took turns flooding the chat screen with emojis.
They could not believe it. I could not believe it. Two queers, marginalised in their respective territories, entering centre stage for the first time – how could this have happened?
Bringing Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City into English was one of the most difficult things I have ever done as a literary translator. At the time of the Booker nomination, I had never won a prize for translation (except a trophy for fourth place, which really doesn’t count). I have never won the Korea Times translation prize, the LTI Korea debut translator prize (or any of their other translation prizes for that matter), or even the prize for best student at my LTI Korea Academy cohort, of which I am the only one who went on to become a literary translator.
For the record, I also didn’t win the International Booker for which I was nominated. But even before 2022, I had been long resigned to the fact that I just wasn’t what prize committees looked for. I apparently didn’t fit the idea of what an award-winning translator should look like, and my work, no matter how well it was received by critics and the public, simply didn’t warrant singling out.
I had shrugged and stopped focusing on what I couldn’t control and looked into what I could. As nice as it would be to win a prize, my real professional goal was very clear: to live a life where I could practise the literary arts to my heart’s content, to continue translating and writing for at least a modest living. Being the cunning little Aries that I am, I devised my strategy by working backwards from this goal: if I wanted to keep translating and writing for a living, I needed enough people to buy my work, and that meant I needed to build a readership, a critical mass of people who were aware of my work and willing to pick it up. But how does one go about building a readership? And more importantly, who were these readers?
There are many myths about what the typical book reader is, this mythical English reader that I would need to cater to if I wanted to have a career. I was constantly told about this reader, especially as a translation student (‘The English reader will not like this ending,’ ‘The English reader hates footnotes,’ etc). As far as I could make out, my mythical English reader was white. He was a man, cisgender, heterosexual, and of a certain age. He hated reading short stories and preferred long novels about other white, cishet men. He would never pick up a translation, certainly not from a non-Western European country. And on and on and on… This myth was so persistent that I wrote a separate essay about it in Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation, published by Tilted Axis Press. But how much truth was there within this myth?
All of a sudden, Korean literature was seen as edgy and fierce, and emerging translators like me took note. Maybe there was a readership for queer Korean literature…
The Booker Prize Foundation recently published a study that looked into the UK readership for literature in translation, and they uncovered a number of fascinating statistics. For instance, 48% of buyers of translated literature were under the age of 34, with only 8% in retirement age. The gender divide was more or less split down the middle, with the largest purchase group in fact being ‘females aged 13-24, with 15.5% of all purchases, followed by females aged 25-34 (13.7% of all translated fiction purchases)’. In other words, the actual – as opposed to mythical – English readers when it came to translated literature in the UK were mostly young people.
This is something I can at least anecdotally confirm in my quest to build a readership in English. Because I lived outside of the UK and the US, I could not go to in-person events where I could meet readers and talk to them directly about books and literature. I needed to use online forums, which was why I aggressively searched out readers of my translations on social media and other platforms, personally thanking them for their posts and for reading the books, trying to say yes to as many book club appearances and guest posts for book blogs as I could. And the thing about these online ‘Bookstagram’ and ‘BookTube’ (and now, increasingly, ‘Booktok’) posters was that they indeed were a younger demographic.
There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part, I found myself scrolling through the feeds of voracious young readers who seemed to read everything they could get their hands on, whether it was poetry, creative non-fiction, translated literature, or very highbrow literary classics – all of the books that we keep hearing that no one was reading any more. A favourite type of post for me was ‘book hauls’ where I would find Love in the Big City or Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny slipped into artfully arranged piles of books that ranged eclectically from YA bestsellers to the latest translation of Proust.
These younger readers do not see queer literature as a bandwagon, or diversity and inclusion as merely a fad. The reactionary blather surrounding representation and identity politics tends to reduce inclusivity discourse to accusations of pandering. And to whom is translated literature supposedly pandering? Did that many gay Korean men who read English descend on Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road to buy out their stock of Love in the Big City?
There has been, I believe, a sea change in how translated literature is being read by English readers. The words ‘translated literature’ are used to conjure up dead European men writing about wars, bourgeois families and modernism. Perhaps sensing this was how the game was to be played, the powers-that-be in Korean literature tended to push Korea’s own old men who were talking about the war – until, that is, Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the International Booker Prize in 2016. All of a sudden, Korean literature was seen as edgy and fierce, and emerging translators like me took note. Maybe there was a readership for queer Korean literature, or even Korean speculative fiction, as The Vegetarian had many elements of queerness and ‘weird fiction’ and fantasy; maybe the readership for translated fiction was less conservative than we thought. Much less conservative in fact. And if the Anglosphere was ready for this book, what other surprises could they be delighted by?
Younger readers do not see queer literature as a bandwagon, or diversity and inclusion as merely a fad
Reading, to me, is not about being pandered to or seeking out something I already know I like. Reading is about being surprised, or learning about something I never would have dreamed existed, or enjoying something I wouldn’t have imagined myself enjoying until I picked up a certain book. My favourite reading experiences are when my mind is blown because I could not have expected that such a book would exist, much less that I would enjoy it.
Sure, there is such a thing as comfort reading, and there are books we return to precisely because we know them so well. But even in this kind of reading, there is an incredible charge of energy when discovering something in a well-read text that one has never noticed before, a new way of reading an old book. The whole point of classical literature, by the way, is that readers of each generation invent new ways of reading these books that fit their own experience as much as the imagined past. And what is the point of translation, really, if not only the discovery of the unknown, but also a new way of reading an old book?
I wonder if the joy Norman and I experienced that day was ultimately the joy of being read as much as being seen, that our hard work was being taken seriously. That it was proof that our very queer experiences and feelings were being read with sincerity, respect, and love. In the back of my mind, I had been fully prepared for Love in the Big City to be met with all the indifference and contempt I had experienced throughout my professional life as a literary translator. I had desperately manoeuvred around the mythical English reader, who loomed large in my mind, trying to get to the readers in his shadow. Books like Norman and Tiffany’s Happy Stories, Mostly, or our fellow longlistee After the Sun by Jonas Eika, translated by Sherilyn Hellberg, or this year’s shortlistee, Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches – the list goes on and on – were all no doubt born from similar navigation through the shadows by both author and translator.
And on that joyous day, it had become clear to Norman and I that we had been the ones in the light all along.